“He was born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad, and that was the sum of his patrimony.” The first line from Raphael Sabatini’s classic Scaramouche is not just a powerful narrative hook, but nearly all that is needed to introduce one of the greatest characters in literature. One of the essential skills any writer must have is to create and develop characters that matter to the reader, who engage the emotions and expectations so that the story comes to life. It doesn’t matter how good a writer is at plotting and world-building, if she can’t make her characters come to life her stories will just droop across the page, at best dull and at worst unreadable.
Most new writers understand this, but many make the mistake of confusing a character with a bunch of character traits. Deciding that your detective walks with a limp, has a deep southern accent, has a peculiar scar on his forehead and drives a 1957 Vovlo sedan does not make him real to the reader. That might be a start, but unless there are real reasons for each of these things, they will remain what they are; a bunch of random things decided at a whim.
Real characters must have real histories. It is not enough that your mighty-thewed swordsman is a Barbarian. For one thing, people are universally ethno-centric, which means to him the ways he was taught at his grandfather’s knee are the way things are, and these soft-bellied silk-clad decadent city-dwellers are to be pitied, if not outright scorned. For another, unless your story has him springing whole from the forehead of a goddess he will have had a childhood, and parents, and a culture most likely as rich and fulfilling and deep as that of the weak-kneed cosmopolitans he looks down on, with myths and legends, just-so stories and survival tales, and complex social patterns and taboos. All of these things can be spun into creating a hero who strides across the pages and into the memory of your readers.
Minor characters must have real reasons for both being in your story and for the actions they take. It is important to remember that each person is the hero of their own tale. You don’t need to info-dump a six line character sketch for every evil minion, but if you don’t know at least something about why and how your characters got there and act the way they do, they will be flat and uninteresting.
Next chance you get, take a look at the classic film Casablanca. Besides some of the best lines ever written, there is a brilliance of character that is easy to overlook. Every sleazy deal-maker and shady character is presented with a depth and an almost visible history. Their disreputable pasts are mostly implied and entirely real to the viewer. Give your characters that kind of life. Make them not minor players, but simply all too brief glimpses of interesting and vital people, threads in the vast human tapestry.